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‘Sopranos’ reruns stir mob scene

Potential buyers include TNT, A&E, Spike, Lifetime

Tony Soprano, Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie Walnuts are not yet planning to make any personal calls on the networks, but HBO has begun pitching “Sopranos” reruns to basic cable, attaching the pricetag of $1.8 million an episode.

TNT, A&E, Spike, USA, FX and Lifetime are among the networks expected to show the most interest in bidding on “Sopranos” over the next few weeks.

HBO and various potential buyers are keeping mum about the negotiations, but the pay cabler is offering all 78 episodes of “Sopranos” for availability in fall 2006. As with every original skein post-“Sex and the City,” HBO already has an edited version in the can that ad-supported nets could air without running afoul of the government. Even a slightly sanitized “Sopranos” could very well harvest a premium from advertisers seeking the upscale crowd that flocks to the series on HBO.

“Sopranos” creator David Chase and his staff are working on the scripts for the sixth and final season of the series, which will run on HBO next year.

One downside, “Sopranos” is a serialized drama, a format that tends to do poorly in reruns: Viewers clicking on an episode in the middle of a season may be confused by carryover plots built up over previous episodes.

For that reason, A&E ended up buying the cable-rerun rights to Twentieth TV’s critically acclaimed “24” for a bargain-basement price of about $250,000 an episode, and TNT paid a similar amount for Buena Vista TV’s “Alias.”

But HBO is convinced that “Sopranos,” which more than one serious critic has called the greatest American TV drama ever made, is in a class by itself. Execs at the pay cabler feel the show may even top the previous record price for an off-network hour of $1.92 million an episode, which USA Network and Bravo agreed to pony up in a combined deal late last year for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

If basic cable rejects the $1.8 million an episode asking price for “Sopranos,” HBO reserves the right to pull the series from the marketplace.

Back in February 2001, HBO ended the first basic-cable auction for “Sex and the City” reruns, concluding that even though the show was chalking up bids of $750,000, “Sex” was even more valuable in repeated play on HBO and its various multiplex channels.

Two years later, the marketplace rewarded HBO’s caution big time: “Sex and the City” scored more than $100 million in shared license fees from TBS in cable and from Tribune and other group-owned TV stations in off-net syndication.

On TBS, which runs it twice in primetime on Tuesday and twice on Wednesday, “Sex and the City” has pulled in a solid number of young women — despite the heavy scissoring that had to be done on some of the episodes and the recurring subplots threaded over many episodes. HBO will use those TBS numbers as selling points in trying to convince potential buyers how “Sopranos” may play in reruns on basic cable.

The heavy skew toward men of the HBO runs of “Sopranos” (55% male for the most recent season) may deter Lifetime, Oxygen and WE: Women’s Entertainment from engineering serious bids for the program.

The limited number of total episodes, 78, could also act as a deterrent because viewers could get tired of the reruns pretty quickly. By contrast, “Law & Order” has built up an inventory of more than 300 episodes, and the way “CSI” is going, it could end up going well beyond 200.

On the plus side, the license fee looks a lot less imposing when the station multiplies $1.8 million by only 78 rather than by more than 300.